Stories I Probably Won’t Get Around To Writing: The Silent and The Dead

March 17th, 2014  |  Published in Uncategorized, writing

Okay, let’s say that there’s a zombie outbreak and virtually everyone gets infected (99% or more).  What would that look like? I’m going to use Olympia as an example, as that is where I live.

The average population density of Thurston County (where Olympia is located) is 347 people/square mile. This could be better (the average for the US is 88) but it could be a whole lot worse (Los Angeles County has a population density of 2,100 people/square mile). Assuming “Walking Dead” style zombies, with a small group, you should be able to clear a square mile without too much trouble over the course of a week. The problem comes in when people get guns. Something like an assault rifle might be audible as far away as five miles. With sustained shooting, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that you would draw every zombie within a three mile radius. Not so bad, right? Wrong. A three mile radius gives you an area of a little over 28 square miles, with 347 zombies per square mile, you’re talking about nearly 10,000 zombies.

Now, let’s say that you’re a survivalist shooting zombies from their roof. Even with a 100% accuracy rate, you would be talking about 10,000 rounds, and at 28 pounds/1000 rounds, you would be talking about 280 pounds of ammunition, just to give you an idea of the amount of supplies you would need. Furthermore, what would 10,000 zombies look like? Shoulder to shoulder, that many people would take up something like one and a half football fields. In any case, I think that you get the picture. Things would not be good for our lone survivalist with his buried gold, canned food, and mountain of ammunition. I wouldn’t write about him.

Instead, I would write about the sort of group that would survive the math of the situation. They would need to be competent, not necessarily at killing zombies, but in organizing themselves as a group. A disorganized or fractious group of people with weapons doesn’t have many more choices than the a single armed person (in fact they may even have fewer, as their resource footprint would increase with their size). Weapons are force multipliers for individuals. Organization, on the other hand, is a force multiplier for groups.

The group would find a defensible place with a source of fresh water (and as far from survivalist types as practicable), and they would secure that area as quietly as possible, then gradually move out, clearing the area around them.  Once they had carved out a large enough area for themselves, they would create zombie traps, basically pits with sound emitting things (perhaps a shishi odishi for zombies?) scattered around the area’s perimeter. Every day or so, someone would head out the pits, dump in some gasoline, and burn the day’s zombies.

Wouldn’t they need that gasoline for their cars? No. First of all, gasoline goes bad and eventually will not work in your engines (but will probably still be viable for burning some zombies). Second, cars are loud (see the bit about drawing zombies to you above) and require cleared roads or paths. Finally, gasoline production would cease at the zombie outbreak (or shortly thereafter), and the group would soon find itself scavenging farther and farther away just to fuel their vehicles.

So what sort of stories would take place in this setting? First of all, there wouldn’t be much soap opera (which isn’t to say that it would be entirely absent, either), as it requires a fractious group and would likely get everyone killed before long. Instead, the story would probably focus on the various struggles from within the group, such as how decisions are made, and how to deal with divisive issues (51-49 votes are terrible for morale, see congress). The group would have to decide on its relationship to other survivors. I’m sure that there would be plenty of stories to tell in this setting. The main difference is that it wouldn’t be as annoying as much of what you see being made these days, which either assumes that people are basically bad (it seems to me that our world is an example of the opposite) or that people want to watch petty squabbling, or both.

In any case, I probably won’t write this, or at least not any time soon, but wanted to share the ideas anyway. If you do want to write it, feel free.

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Applied Logic

March 20th, 2013  |  Published in commentary, logic

Earlier this month, a bit of a kerfuffle broke out between Representative Ed Orcutt and the Washington state bicycle community. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the linked article, and I suggest you read it, but what I want to talk about is logic.

Logic is the study of the connections between things, and is often not taught explicitly until college (although Geometry class might cover it). In short, logic is the difference between being told “one one two” and “one plus one equals two”. The first example is just a bunch of numbers, the second is a logical statement. Simple, right? Not exactly. The thing about logic is that it is not about whether or not the individual elements are true, but whether the connections between them make sense. Take, for example: “All pigs are green. I am a pig. Therefore I am green.” On the face of it, this argument is wacky, but the logic works out, if all pigs are green and I am one of them, then I must be green, too, right? The connections between these false statements make sense even if the content being connected is factually incorrect.

At this point you might be thinking to yourself, “And this guy thinks this green pig nonsense is more likely to make me study logic? Maybe he is a green pig.” I’m glad you’re thinking critically about what I’m saying, but I have a point, so bear with me.

When someone makes an argument, it can be approached in many ways. I would argue that there are three basic approaches, and I will focus on those: emotional, fact based, and logic based. The emotional approach is basically evaluating an argument based on how it makes you feel, and many arguments count on this, which is why so many politicians try to induce fear or anger when they speak. Unfortunately, it is wide open to manipulation, as it makes you want to just react, rather than thinking about it. Fact based evaluation is what you most likely did when you first read the green pig argument. You most likely rejected it based on the fact that you had never seen a green pig, and that it would be very difficult for me to type this with cloven hooves instead of fingers. Logical evaluation is the analysis of connections, which entails ignoring whether or not the statements in an argument are true and instead assessing whether or not they necessarily lead to the conclusion.

To be clear, I’m not advocating the use of one of these over all others, but rather that you should expand your evaluative toolbox and use whichever method or combination of methods is most appropriate. If something feels wrong emotionally, then there is a good chance that something is wrong with it. If you don’t have the right facts, you can be convinced that I am a green pig. If you don’t have good logic, you can be led to bogus conclusions from accurate facts.

You might be thinking that in this networked age, where an unprecedented amount of information is available, we should just be able to fact check everything. Yes and no. We can fact check a lot of things, but the truth of the matter is that when someone is trying to convince us of something, there is a good chance that we simply will not have time to check all of their assertions, and even if we did have the time to do that, we probably would not want to. And so we might just have to rely on logic. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, true assertions can lead to false conclusions if they are not linked logically, and Rep. Orcutt’s argument is a perfect example of this.

Here is an excerpt from his email (the whole thing is available in the linked post):

Also, you claim that it is environmentally friendly to ride a bike. But if I am not mistaken, a cyclists (sic) has an increased heart rate and respiration. That means that the act of riding a bike results in greater emissions of carbon dioxide from the rider. Since CO2 is deemed to be a greenhouse gas and a pollutant, bicyclists are actually polluting when they ride.

And here is a breakdown of his argument:

  1. Cyclists have increased heart rate and respiration.
  2. Increased heart rate and respiration result in increased CO2 output.
  3. CO2 is a greenhouse gas and a pollutant.
  4. Therefore, cyclists are polluting when they ride.

This is a solid argument. The facts check out and the logic is sound. The problem comes in when you look at the claim that he is attempting to disprove: “it is environmentally friendly to ride a bike.” On the face of it, this looks fine, if we define environmentally friendly to mean “not harmful to the environment” in an absolute sense. Unfortunately there is context. The assertion that he was responding to was: “Additionally, bicyclists produce fewer emissions and reduce healthcare costs through increased physical fitness.” (full text of original email, if you’re curious). To rephrase, skipping the bit about healthcare, “Bicycles produce fewer emissions than cars.” Which brings us to the wonderful world of logical fallacies.

There are forms of arguments that are always invalid. One of the most common is the straw man. In a straw man, a person is confronted with an argument. Instead of attacking that argument, they create a weaker argument (a straw man, if you will) and attack that instead. For example, it is much easier to attack the argument that bicycles cause no pollution than the argument that bicycles cause less pollution than cars. Rep. Orcutt never said anything about the original argument, but tried to trick us into believing that he had. His argument makes no sense and can be safely ignored.

Whew. That may seem like a lot of work to go through simply to call bullshit on a politician for acting like a politician, but once you get used to thinking like this, you will read a paragraph like that and immediately realize that there is no connection between what he is saying and what he wants you to think he is saying, no fact checking required.

On a final note, Rep. Orcutt did issue an apology, saying that the issue of bicycles not being zero-carbon “was not a point worthy of even mentioning” and went on to sound like a much more reasonable person. Nonetheless, the fact remains that he used a straw man in dealing with a constituent. Either he did so knowingly, which is a form of dishonesty, or unknowingly, in which case I would question his competence as political representative.

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An Industrial Religion

November 17th, 2011  |  Published in commentary

Yesterday on Diaspora, I wrote:

I’ve been (slowly) working my way through “A Year In the Life of a Shinto Shrine” by John K. Nelson, and every couple of chapters something completely unexpected comes up like: “From an anthropological perspective that compares cultures worldwide, belief is one of the least important characteristics of religious activity.” Or a quote from the subject shrine’s head priest: “We hear a lot of talk about how Japan is regarded as one of the world’s advanced societies–and that may be true materially–but culture is something which can’t be classified as high or low.” he then goes on to talk about how culture can’t be quantified and that Africa has a richness of spirit that was once mirrored in Japan but is rapidly fading.

The second quote reminds me of what James Prosek said in his book “Eels” (which was fantastic) about how the eel plays a huge role in many early religions, but those religions only made sense for a society still in contact with nature and have not transitioned to modern life very well.

I picked up the book for an insight into an animistic worldview (after Voltaire’s Bastards made me consider it), but the read has been far more rewarding than anticipated.

After writing this, I started to think about classifying religions by their contexts. I would probably classify animistic religions as being natural religions, in that they deal in large part with humankind’s relationship to nature. Then there are the social religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism to name a few, which mostly concern themselves with humankind’s relationship to societies. What, then, comes next?

I would argue that we are seeing a religious attitude form around our relationships with technology, rationality, and causality (note that I do not include science, as science knows what its limitations are and a faith-based view of it would be better classified as faith in rationality or causality), an Industrial or Technological religion. What would be an example of this Industrial religion? Determinism is the first thing that comes to mind, even though it has some big problems.

I have some other thoughts on the consequences of this line of thinking, mainly about the utility of faith in dealing with things that are too complex to be properly grasped by the individual until some sort of mental toolkit is developed, but those are topics for another essay. Finally, it may seem that I am trying to smear logical thought. I am not. I do not view faith as intrinsically bad, as many do (I’m more worried about absolute certainty, myself), but simply an aspect of human nature, so please consider that before complaining.

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